Can we assert online identity whilst preserving autonomy and anonymity?

I recently attended #ukgc12 (UK Gov Camp 2012) for the first time. For those who are not familiar with this conference, it’s a gathering of 300-400 individuals with ties to UK central or local government, who want to innovate using technology or debate ethical issues surrounding the use of technology. The conference spanned two days this year: the first day focussing on debate and the second day on workshops.

Although I found all the sessions I attended very inspiring, my personal favourite has to be the debate on “democratic identity” chaired by @curiousc. I found this debate intellectually stimulating because identity management is something I have been interested in from a technical perspective for some time. My focus has been focussed using identity management techniques to help make web applications convenient for users to use, with the belief that this will increase convergence. However, I had never approached it from a democratic perspective before.

The basic premise was whether or not an online posting made anonymously should bear any weight in democratic debates. There were different opinions expressed, but all centred around the following main points.

  • The content of the posting or quality/reputation of the online community in which the posting was made is of more significance than knowing the individual’s identity
  • The identity of the individual can be vouched for by an external identity provider service in accordance with the community’s identity requirements

Although the first point would be interesting to debate more, the second point is more applicable to my personal interest in identity management.

The general premise is that the individual should be able to post anonymously within the community. For some, anonymous postings may be the only way their voice can be heard without putting themselves in danger. What’s important to realise is that this does not mean that the individual will be posting without any form of handle. They might be called “fred_flintstone”, but the discussion point made can be just as genuine as that of someone using their real name. In fact, the individual may not think the discussion point is of any real significance at the time of posting it, but then it turns out others have had similar thoughts and the points are explored further, increasing the profile of the debate.

If the profile of the debate increases, someone might challenge the validity of the individual’s participation in the debate.  For example, if the debate is about disturbances in a particular neighbourhood, others might challenge the individual on the basis that they believe s/he does not live in the neighbourhood and hence their description of events is unlikely to be accurate. In such a situation, an external identity service may be used by the individual to link their “anonymous” handle with a set of identity assertions such as “individual lives within X miles of point Y” where Y represents the centre point of the neighbourhood. As long as there exists trust between the community and the external service provider, this assertion should be a enough for the community to take the individual’s description of events seriously whilst the individual’s identity is kept protected.

I wonder if there exists a social space where such an approach has been implemented?


2 thoughts on “Can we assert online identity whilst preserving autonomy and anonymity?

    • Very interesting website. I hadn’t come across it before. Based on the user guide available on the website, it definitely has a model whereby discussions start small, and then get escalated. I can see however that you only have to provide location information when you register a new campain. However, the identities of the discussion participants don’t appear to be protected? It says in the guide that the website will provide the names of all the local supports of a popular campaign to their local MP, though these are not shown to others participating in the discussion.

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